“If we want to keep feeding the world, we need to tackle the over-consumption of industrial foods”

Consumers can make an important contribution to the problem of food insecurity with the help of the government and other actors, says Jolien Plaete from Healthy Living.

The war in Ukraine, the effects of the corona and global warming are causing us to fear a global food crisis. Our shopping cart is getting more and more expensive and food insecurity continues to rise around the world. The call to secure and increase food production is therefore becoming ever higher.

In the articles and opinion pieces published so far, the emphasis has always been strongly on one side of the story: We must produce more and strive for improvements in production. But in Western countries, much can still be gained by adjusting our consumption patterns: eating more of other foods and avoiding overconsumption and food loss. It is urgent and the scale of the challenge we face therefore requires action on several levels. The solution lies in a sustainable food system, which is now more urgent than ever. From farm to fork, because the consumer also plays an important role in the food system.

Let’s be honest: our current diet is not sustainable.

Let’s be honest: our current diet is not sustainable. Not for ourselves – and our own health – and not for the planet. We buy and eat more than we need, resulting in a lot of obesity and food waste. If we stick to the same menu in the coming years, we must (even more) deal with global warming and extreme weather conditions, such as drought and extreme rainfall, which among other things lead to crop failure.

On average, each Flemish country throws out no less than 37 kg of food and beverages each year. Food loss that can be prevented by planning purchases and storing food better. We also eat too much and the wrong food. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently reported monstrous obese metals (55% of Belgians are overweight, 21% obese). In addition to the health risks it entails, there are also the associated sky-high costs. Sciensano made the calculation and comes to 4.5 million a year in costs for our country. Think only of medical costs of developing disorders related to obesity (eg cardiovascular disease or diabetes), but also indirect costs that lead to unemployment or sick leave.

Furthermore, overconsumption also has an unnecessary impact on the environment. This effect can be considered as a form of food loss or an inefficient use of food because more food is consumed than necessary. It is mainly products that do not make any useful or perhaps even negative contribution to health that we need to reduce the over-consumption of. These are so-called ’empty calories’, such as sugary soft drinks, salty snacks, sweets and alcoholic beverages. They provide energy (calories) but few or no useful nutrients (mainly sugar and / or fat). Empty calories saturate, but they are not nutritious. Although they are superfluous, they are strongly embedded in our diets. And we quickly eat too much of them because they are attractive, widely available and easy to consume. Fleming gets on average a third of his daily food intake from the group of empty calories. It is not necessary to remove them completely, but we can eat these products less often and in small portions.

In short, the consumer is of great importance in achieving a more sustainable food system and thus food safety. But it will not work alone. After all, our choices and our eating behaviors are shaped by many factors, such as our competencies needed to eat healthy and environmentally responsible, and our motivation to do so effectively (or not). Another important factor is the environment in which a person lives: whether there is a large supply of unhealthy food nearby or rather healthy food. Therefore, the policy and the actors involved in the food chain ((primary) producer, retail, hotel and restaurant industry, etc.) also play an important role. They can make healthy and environmentally friendly food choices accessible, easier and more attractive to consumers.

The food triangle can serve as a compass for such choices. In 2021, we explored the synergy between a healthy diet and food with a lower environmental impact. It turns out that eating healthier also has a beneficial environmental impact. A diet with fewer foods of animal origin and less highly processed products that are considered empty calories leads to a win-win.

Getting the consumption pattern (and preferably also the production) more in line with the advice of the food triangle is therefore a crucial contribution to a future-proof food system.

Want to read more about environmentally friendly food consumption? See our synthesis document (Prepared in collaboration with the environmental department and experts in healthy and environmentally responsible food)

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